After a heartbreaking 53-51 loss to the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday, Arizona fans sweated out the NCAA selection show, only to be disappointed. In a subsequent show, the selection committee showed Arizona to be not even close to consideration.
Two hours after being left out of the NCAA tournament, Arizona was invited to the National Invitational Tournament as a top seed. It has the opportunity to host the first three rounds, but must first beat the Bucknell Bison.
Bucknell will travel from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and bring its 24-9 record with them. The Bison, out of the Patriot League, have won 16 of their last 19 games, with two of those losses coming to Lehigh, which made it to the NCAA tournament with a 82-77 victory over Bucknell in the Patriot League tournament final last Wednesday.
The Bison are a good team this year and most of their losses have come at the hands of NCAA tournament teams or other NIT teams.
Bucknell averages 69 points per game as a team and holds opponents to just 61.2 points, which is simlar to Arizona. In addition, both teams hold identical home records, 14-3, but split ways when it comes to road games. Bucknell is 10-6 in true road games and Arizona is 7-5, but since the game is at McKale Center, that record shouldn't matter.
Bucknell is led on the sidelines by head coach Dave Paulsen, who is in his fourth year with the team. He is a collective 70-58 with Bucknell up to this point and is looking to improve on their season, as it has one more win last year when it finished 25-9 and was bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round by eventual tournament champion Connecticut.
The Bison are led on the court by 6-foot-11 center Mike Muscala. Muscala, a 234-pound junior, was named to the first team All-Patriot team for the second time this year. It was well deserved, as he finished second in voting for Patriot League player of the year.
Muscala led the team with 16.7 points in 29.6 minutes this season and also had a team-high 8.9 rebounds per game. The junior will surely be a problem for Arizona's defense, as the Wildcats are a much smaller team and Muscala's height and strength can be a major problem if Bucknell chooses to have him carry the team offensively.
Muscala is joined in front court by 217-pound forward Joe Willman. The 6-foot-7 junior is tied for second on the team in scoring with 10.8 points and is also second in rebounds per game for the Bison. He is another big player that can hurt the Cats, but the junior forward also averages 1.6 assists and can get the ball inside the arc, kicking it out to an open shooter. This could also become an issue for the Wildcats as Bucknell shoots almost 40% from beyond the arc.
Bucknell is led at point guard by Bryan Cohen. The 6-foot-6 senior was recently named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year for the third consecutive time. Cohen doesn't score a bunch of points, just 6.7 per game, but makes his mark on the defensive side of the ball. The senior plays defense with an immense amount of energy and creates tough scoring opportunities for the opposing offense.
Cohen also creates a few plays on offense, as he leads the team with two and a half assists per game while bringing down 3.7 rebounds.
Another major scoring threat in the game will be sophomore Cameron Ayers. The 6-foot-5, 203-pound guard put up 10.8 points this season, shooting 45% from the three-point line. He could be one of the big players to benefit if Arizona decides to collapse the defense on the big men. Ayers can easily put up big numbers depending on the way Sean Miller elects to defend against Bucknell.
Filling out the starting lineup for Bucknell is sophomore Ryan Hill. The 6-foot-3, 202-pound guard averaged 16.7 minutes for the Bison this season, but has had his ups and downs. Hill has some games that he contributes a decent amount and those are usually the games Bucknell wins easily.
He struggled in the final against Lehigh and played just 12 minutes, grabbed a rebound, dishing out an assist, and scoring two points. Hill is only a sophomore, but his success could likely mean success for Bucknell, so he can be a key player to watch.
First off the bench should be 6-foot-2 Bryson Johnson. The 194-pound junior is the true meaning of sixth man for this team. He averages 9.3 points per game, also collecting two boards each time out. Johnson is quick and can be a handful for Arizona's guards unless Kyle Fogg is assigned to the guard defensively. Johnson can also be a threat from deep if he gets hot, as he shoots just over 40% from beyond the arc.
Next off the bench for the Bison is freshman guard Steven Kaspar. Kaspar, 6-foot-2, 181-pounds, played in all 33 games this season, averaging 16.8 minutes of playing time. He had a 2.5 year, averaging 2.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. Kasper shouldn't be a major factor against Arizona, but is a player that can be overlooked with just a few days to scout the Bison.
Another bench player that may get overlooked in the scramble this week is sophomore forward Brian Fitzpatrick. The 6-foot-8 forward gets his minutes on the court giving other player breaks, but also contributes as well. He adds 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds to the lineup. Fitzpatrick is a player that doesn't beat a team by himself, but can help keep his team in the game with defense and intensity.
The last player we could see in extended minutes is sophomore guard Ben Brackney. The 6-foot-6, 208-pounder only averaged 7.4 minutes per game this season, but appeared in 28 of Bucknell's 33 games. He adds three points and a rebound to Bucknell's stats. He doesn't influence the game very much, but does what is needed of him when he steps on the court.
Arizona may be find that Bucknell gives it much more trouble than an eight seed should give a one seed in the NIT. Without Josiah Turner, who is suspended for the remainder of the season, the Wildcats marched through the Pac-12 tournament, only to fall just short of winning the title. Bucknell now stands as the first test on the road to the NIT title.